It Always Sounds Better in Your Head

I’ve worked with thousands of bright and articulate people in my twenty plus years of training, people who are justly confident of their ability to rise to the occasion and think fast on their feet, whether it is in a sales call, an important presentation to their boss, or the give-and-take of internal meetings.

That confidence is usually an asset, but it often veers dangerously into overconfidence which leaves them vulnerable to error and discourages the preparation that could make them even better than they already are.

Here’s just one example. In teaching sales call planning I have salespeople list the top objections they expect to hear from their customers during the call, and next to it, jot down the key points they would use to answer the objection. Most salespeople find the first step easy to do, because they’ve heard some of the same objections over and over hundreds of times. Yet, because they’ve heard them so often, they usually resist writing something in the second column, because the answer is so obvious to them in their own minds. Unfortunately, when they role-play the call, and get the same objection they have heard over and over, they almost always fumble a little, as if they are re-inventing a good answer every single time. When we debrief the role plays, they will usually admit that they could have expressed the answer better.

Why does this happen? When we’re anticipating explaining something, our minds are working with far more information about that topic than the listener will have, and we are also processing thoughts about that information about four times as fast as the rate of normal conversation.  As a simple example, we can visualize the route from home to office in milliseconds, but it might take much longer to describe all the streets and turns. We might even know to turn at the third street past the bent stop sign, but not know the name of the street.

Turn that scenario into a sales situation: for instance, the customer might object to our higher price. We know the higher price is more than worth it because it allows us to provide additional features which will reduce the customer’s total costs—in milliseconds we can visualize the “route” of our argument, because our minds have crossed that familiar mental ground many times. But remember, the customer may be hearing it for the first time; how much are you leaving out or taking for granted?

The context we take for granted may make all the difference. Last week I taught a class for a group of engineers who, in addition to their day jobs, run classes to teach their technology to other engineers. These are very smart people teaching other very smart people, so they tend to overestimate both their own ability to teach the information and the ability of their listeners to grasp what they’re saying. Using a trick I learned from Made to Stick, I asked a volunteer to think of a simple tune and then tap out the tune so the others could guess what it was. Before he began, I asked him how confident he was that they would get it, and he guessed the majority would figure it out easily. Sixteen of us listened intently, and precisely zero of us could hear “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in his random-sounding noise. I’m sure it sounded a lot better in his head than it did in our ears.

I had the same problem when I sat down to write this article. Forty-five minutes ago, I got this idea in my mind, but it took about fifteen minutes and several false starts before I finally got some traction and figured out what I wanted to say; and then more time to tease out how I wanted to say it.

That’s why it’s so important to write things down, or at least practice saying them aloud. As Barbara Minto says in her book, The Pyramid Principle: “No one can know precisely what he thinks until he has been forced to symbolize it—either by saying it out loud or by writing it down—and even then the first statement of the idea is likely to be less precise than he can eventually make it.”

Remember, the test of effective communication is not whether it sounds good in your head, but how it sounds in their ears.

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